WASHINGTON - As rebels moved to consolidate control over a post-Muammar Gaddafi
Libya, foreign policy analysts in the United States are debating whether
Washington's role in the nearly six-month civil war in the oil-rich North
African nation marks a new model for military intervention and "regime change"
in objectionable countries.
Much of the debate has revolved around the claim made in April by an anonymous
administration official quoted in The New Yorker that President Barack Obama
was pursuing a conscious strategy of "leading from behind" - by which he meant
quietly galvanizing action by others to gain the desired result without the US
itself being seen to lead the charge.
"It's so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what
America is in the world," the adviser told the article's author, Ryan Lizza,
who noted the contrast between Obama's "softly-softly" multilateral approach
and the brash cowboy unilateralism of George W Bush and particularly his
invasion of Iraq.
"Leading from behind" was instantly adopted by neo-conservatives and other
hawks as the catch-phrase that, in their view, effectively captured the
weakness of Obama's approach to the rest of the world.
As the conflict in Libya moved into stalemate in the following months, the
phrase became something of their mantra, derisively repeated at every
opportunity by Republican presidential candidates, as well as right-wing
columnists and television talking heads.
Gaddafi's apparent defeat, however, has turned the tables. Some analysts, such
as the influential commentator for CNN and Time, Fareed Zakaria, have even
claimed that Washington's successful strategy in Libya marks "a new era in US
"Many have criticized US President Barack Obama's strategy of 'leading from
behind' in Libya, but that strategy now seems utterly vindicated," wrote Blake
Hounshell, managing editor of foreignpolicy.com. "It was Libyans themselves,
with significant help from NATO, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who
liberated their country from Gaddafi's grip."
That analysis was echoed by Obama's Deputy National Security Advisor Ben
Rhodes, who contrasted the rebel march into Tripoli with "situations when the
foreign government is the occupier".
"There are two principles that the president stressed at the outset [of the
Libya intervention] that have been borne out in our approach," he told
foreignpolicy.com's Josh Rogin. "The first is that we believe it's far more
legitimate and effective for regime change to be pursued by an indigenous
political movement than by the United States or foreign powers."
"Second, we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the US wasn't bearing
the brunt of the burden and so that you had not just international support for
the effort, but also meaningful international contributions," he said.
Others have made much the same point, with Zakaria arguing that Obama had
rightly insisted on four conditions being met before committing US military
force in Libya: the existence of a local opposition willing to wage war;
regional support in the form of an Arab League endorsement and the active
participation by the two Gulf sheikhdoms; United Nations Security Council
authorization; and the willingness of Washington's European allies to bear
much, if not most, of the burden in carrying out the campaign.
"It's important to recognize how different this is from Iraq, where the Bush
administration - either through arrogance or incompetence - got almost none of
these conditions fulfilled," he wrote last week.
All of this celebratory analysis has stung the hawks who, while praising
Gaddafi's demise, have declined to give Obama much, if any, credit. Indeed, the
first reaction by two key Republican leaders who had lobbied for early and
forceful intervention in Libya sounded like sour grapes.
After praising the contributions of the rebel movement and Washington's
European and Arab allies, senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham expressed
"regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the
United States to employ the full weight of our airpower".
Bush's top Middle East aide, Elliott Abrams, echoed that argument in a National
Review article entitled "No, Obama Was Not Right." "Had the White House acted
sooner and more resolutely, Gaddafi could have been brought down sooner, and
with fewer Libyan deaths," he wrote.
Moreover, he suggested, the administration had inflicted lasting damage on the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) due to its failure to heed pleas from
France and Britain, which carried out most of the air attacks on Gaddafi's
forces, to resume the much more active role it played during the first week of
Operation Unified Protector when US warplanes and cruise missiles took out
Libya's air-defense system and other major military targets.
The NATO allies "will wonder whether 'leading from behind' is very different
from refusing to lead," he wrote.
That argument was echoed by one of Abrams' former aides on Bush's National
Security Council, Michael Singh, now with the pro-Israel think-tank, the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"Washington's reluctance to become involved in Libya sends a negative signal to
the Iranian regime and others regarding Washington's stomach for
confrontation," he wrote in a foreignpolicy.com article entitled "Leading From
Behind Still Isn't a Good Idea".
"It conveys instead the impression of an America that is increasingly unwilling
or unable to exercise influence in the Middle East, a development with deeply
Meanwhile, Daniel Drezner, a conservative international politics professor at
Tufts University, mocked the principles and conditions set forth by Rhodes and
Zakaria that Obama purportedly insisted had to be met before he would intervene
"[The] set of criteria Zakaria lists is so stringent that I seriously doubt
that they will be satisfied again in my life," Drezner wrote on his blog on
foreignpolicy.com, noting that Russia and China, for example, were unlikely to
approve another Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to
protect civilians when the last one was used by Western powers to carry out
As for Rhodes, "[B]urden-sharing and local support are obviously nifty things
to have. I guarantee you, however, that the time will come when an urgent
foreign-policy priority will require some kind of military statecraft, and
these criteria will not be met. The Obama administration should know this since
its greatest success in military statecraft to date did not satisfy either of
these criteria," he wrote in an allusion to the May killing of al-Qaeda chief
Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Still other hawks took an entirely different tack, insisting that the talk
about "leading from behind" greatly understated Washington's actual role in the
"[T]he American contribution, while small in absolute terms, was absolutely
crucial," according to Max Boot, a neo-conservative at the Council on Foreign
Relations, in an op-ed entitled "Did Libya Vindicate 'Leading From Behind?" in
Thursday's Wall Street Journal.
"It's a shame that some officials are playing down the US role, absurdly trying
to turn the 'leading from behind' gaffe into some kind of Obama doctrine,"
wrote Robert Kagan, a leading neo-conservative ideologue, in the Washington
Post. "In an allegedly 'post-American' world, it is remarkable how
indispensable the United States remains."
But unlike Kagan, a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century,
David Rothkopf, an international business consultant and author who served
under former president Bill Clinton, suggested that the anonymous Obama adviser
quoted by The New Yorker may indeed have had it right and hailed the Libya
intervention as a "pivot point in US foreign policy" that signaled "a long-term
shift away form the hyperpower unilateralism of the Bush years".
"A cash-strapped US is one that will necessarily have to lead in a different
way that depends more on effective collaboration and burden-sharing with other
like-minded powers than did the triumphalist, exceptionalist, plutopower of the
'end of history' years," he wrote in a post entitled "On the economic roots of
leading from behind" on his foreignpolicy.com blog.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.